SharePoint Gets (Mostly) Top Marks

Once clear of the administrative learning curve, users give SPS 2003 high marks for ease of use and integration features.

By Microsoft standards, SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) 1.0 wasn't exactly a barn-burner, so the company had high hopes for SPS 2003, a revamped version of the portal and team collaboration environment released last year. Based on the experiences of early adopters, the new iteration just might catch fire.

SharePoint Portal Server 2003

$3,999 per server; $71 per CAL
Microsoft Corp.

SPS 2003 boasts tight integration with Office 2003, a revamped user interface (UI), new features that help users more easily navigate SharePoint sites and SQL Server integration. The product does present a somewhat steep administrative learning curve, and upgrading from SPS 1.0 is no chip shot due to a lack of migration tools and new .NET underpinnings. But the experiences of several adopters suggest that, after adding up the pluses and minuses, SPS 2003 comes out solidly in the black.

The consensus among users we surveyed is that SPS 1.0 lacks many common usability features and frequently requires the intervention of IT personnel to perform mundane tasks, such as the delegation of users or content owners.

That's a significant problem given that SharePoint is intended to make it easy for users to share and collaborate on documents by publishing them to internal Web sites that they create on the fly. The product also includes knowledge management and document management features.

Staffing and Training
Maintenance—particularly with respect to staffing requirements—is one area in which adopters can wring significant cost savings out of SPS 2003 vis-à-vis its predecessor. "Typically IT gets it up and running and hands over the keys," says Mauro Cardarelli, a consultant with systems integrator Knowledge Management Inc. "SPS does not require dedicated [IT human] resources." Because data can be split among many different owners in the SPS 2003 model, he says, "the time spent updating content is only a small fraction of job responsibilities."

David Lowe, a consultant with systems integrator and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Intellinet, agrees. SPS 2003 allows IT organizations to "delegate adding users and content down to the department, division or even the user level," he says, whereas its predecessor required IT intervention to accomplish these tasks.

David Goebel, a SharePoint administrator with the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (CUIAB), paints a somewhat less rosy administration picture. He recently completed an upgrade from SharePoint Portal Server 1.0 to SPS 2003 on a four-way Dell Xeon box supporting 900 users. While he is indeed the only administrator overseeing CUIAB's SPS 2003 migration effort, he has his hands full.

"There are a ton of admin screens for settings, security, etc. I've been working with them for the past six months and I still don't know exactly how many admin screens there are and where they're all located," says Goebel. "Administration [in SPS 2003] is a fairly difficult task."

David Goebel has his hands full minding a 900-person SPS 2003 implementation.
As the only admin minding a 900-person SharePoint 2003 implementation, David Goebel has his hands full.

While SPS 2003 may present a significant learning curve for administrators, the opposite is the case for end users, says Jeff Centimano, a principal consultant with system integrator Levi, Ray & Shoup Inc. "Training—or lack thereof—is my favorite thing about SharePoint. With absolutely no training at all a user can navigate the basic functions of SharePoint and find what they need," he says. "With a quick 30-minute lunch and learn session we have empowered customer staff with enough knowledge to post content, contribute to discussions, and even modify basic Web Parts." Web Parts let users build and customize Web pages in SharePoint sites.

It does take a high degree of coordination to realize the full benefit of SPS 2003, however. "Proper planning at installation time with your infrastructure team, DBA, Web design team, content owners and a professional consultant will ensure your IT department is not spending time updating the portal," Lowe says.

Kenton Gardinier, a senior consultant with IT staffing specialist Convergent Computing, says IT must also solicit input from business users during the SPS planning phases, to ensure that business needs map to technical requirements. "Business units and IT must work closely together on most issues, including sizing the solution, developing the user interface, setting user expectations, integrating outside sources of information and much more," he says.

Integration Galore
Users and consultants alike laud the tight ties between the revamped SharePoint product and Office 2003, including tighter coupling with Outlook 2003 and Word 2003. One upshot of this is that many SharePoint features—such as meeting workspaces and share attachments—are seamlessly integrated into Outlook, such that some users aren't even aware they're using a separate application, Lowe says. In the same way, he notes, SPS 2003 installs a "Shared Workspace" task pane in Excel 2003, Word 2003 and other Office applications, which enables users to collaborate and share documents "with little or no interaction with the IT staff."

SPS Migration Tips

Mauro Cardarelli, a consultant with systems integrator Knowledge Management Inc., offered these best practices for those migrating from SharePoint Portal Server 1.0 to SPS 2003, but the tips can also apply to day-to-day SPS administration.

  • Develop and implement maintenance procedures for your SQL Server databases, such as defragmentation, transaction log backups and index management.
  • Pre-allocate database sizes to minimize the number of times the databases will have to expand.
  • Use separate volumes for data and transaction logs. Allocate approximately 13 percent to 15 percent of the data volume's size to the transaction log volume.
  • Consider disabling document versioning.

— Stephen Swoyer

Lowe is smitten with SPS 2003's revamped Web Parts infrastructure. Web Parts is built on top of ASP.NET and provides a .NET object model that contains classes that derive from and extend ASP.NET classes, Lowe says. Users can add Web Parts at runtime, assuming that they have permission to do so, and enable a variety of scenarios, such as:

  • The creation of sites and pages
  • Management of the site user roster
  • Storage of Web Part customizations, including shared and personal property settings
  • Administration of site backups and storage limits
  • Assignment of users to customizable site groups

Lowe is also keen on SPS 2003's new "My Site" feature. My Site provides a repository—clearly accessible from the SharePoint UI—in which users can store content and control who can access it. "This makes it quite simple for non-technical users to contribute to the portal without even knowing the complex posting action taking place in the background," he says. "This personal site has a private storage area for personal content and work in progress, as well as a public storage area for easily sharing the projects and documents they are working on." The personal site includes some AD profile information, providing information to others about each user's role.

Indeed, Gardinier gives SPS 2003 high marks for its integration with AD, noting the two tie together easily and that SPS is flexible in terms of what information it can pull from the directory. "For instance, it has the ability to pull from not only the entire directory but also from select containers like an Organizational Unit," he says.

Knowledge Management's Cardarelli, for his part, insists that SPS 2003's best new feature is a no-brainer: "[The] SQL Server backend—it adds scalability and allows IT folks to see and access all the data directly."

Migration Experiences and Lessons Learned
Based on feedback from users who have done so, organizations mulling SPS 2003 upgrades should expect to encounter a hitch or two.

CUIAB's Goebel, for example, says his ongoing SPS 2003 migration has been "difficult," mainly because of the absence of built-in migration tools. "Testing the migration process and then getting the new portal to match the look and feel of our existing portal has taken six months," he says. "We're going to simulate the entire upgrade process multiple times until we can execute the upgrade without a problem."

Some users reported issues with Microsoft's downloadable migration tools, "Spin" and "Spout"—or, more properly, SPIN.EXE and SPOUT.EXE—which are designed to automate the process of exporting data from SharePoint 1.0 and importing it into SPS 2003. Spout exports the version history of legacy SharePoint sites into XML or flat file formats, while Spin imports SPS Areas or Windows SharePoint Services document libraries. For many users, the tools work as advertised. But others complain of lengthy import/export times and Microsoft's own USENET groups are littered with the carcasses of Spin and Spout migration efforts that somehow went awry.

These tools, while undeniably important, don't address a range of migration issues, such as the requirement that organizations re-code their SharePoint 1.0 Web Parts for SPS 2003 and its new .NET underpinnings (see "SPS Migration Tips"). As a result, says Lowe, the dreaded "P" word—planning, and plenty of it—is critical to the success of any large SharePoint migration. "All tools, including Microsoft's Spin and Spout, have issues," he says, suggesting—ever philosophically, "It's a great time to do a serious purge of your content and documentation."

Users give SPS 2003 high marks for security, with Cardelli pointing specifically to the use of IIS authentication and role-based security as solid features. But he also has a few nits to pick. One is that users can see some links they don't have access to and get a pop-up requesting credentials. "Microsoft says it is for performance, but most find it very annoying," he says.

Similarly, Goebel says that he's both pleased and a little overwhelmed by SPS 2003's security features. "There's a lot of security all over the place and it takes time to figure out where what I'm looking for is."

Lowe points out that, at the portal level, you can only set security on an area, not the document library or file level. "But in fairness, the product's a collaboration tool and [is designed to] lend itself to sharing of information," he says.

In Search of ROI
Most SPS 2003 adopters haven't commissioned return-on-investment studies, but expect there's substantial ROI to be had. For example, says Cardarelli, once an IT organization implements SPS 2003 and brings its personnel up to speed on its new management features—no mean feat, as we've seen—it's a mostly turn-key environment. In this respect, he says, IT can effectively "hand-off" SPS 2003 to business users.

"We help clients split data ownership responsibilities, based on content. The interface is so easy to use it truly becomes a community-run tool," Cardarelli says. "There is no burden on any one person or group to maintain the portal. The [total cost of ownership] is minimized through the easy administration and the natural dissection of content."

Of course you can't get any ROI from new software if employees won't use it. At CIUAB, the original SPS fared pretty well in that respect. "Users really like it for the most part and use it regularly," Goebel says. Given SPS 2003's surfeit of user-friendly features, such as MySite and Shared Workspace, he expects the follow-up will be a smash. Such features allow users to collaborate more effectively, with minimal intervention from IT, resulting in productivity gains for both groups.

Cardarelli identifies several common SPS 2003 ROI benefits, starting with more efficient information reuse. Users often waste large chunks of time searching for documents and other resources on local or network file shares. In an SPS 2003 environment, the same searches take just seconds, thanks to SharePoint's integrated search facility. SPS 2003 can also help reduce e-mail traffic by eliminating the round-robin exchanges that occur when a user is looking for a document that addresses a particular issue. Finally, features like the SharePoint "Announcements List" (which provides a channel for broadcasting information to users), along with standardized templates, can bolster corporate branding efforts by ensuring consistency of corporate messaging.

All in all, SPS 2003 adopters say that the revamped SharePoint is a worthy upgrade to the occasionally frustrating SPS 1.0.

More Information

More Thoughts on SPS 2003

Additional musings on a variety of topics from users interviewed for our story "SharePoint Gets (Mostly) Top Marks."

Bandwidth Usage
With the exception of Levi, Ray & Shoup's Centimano, few users raised any concerns about SPS 2003's bandwidth requirements. Centimano, however, has found that SharePoint's sizeable Java Script files can bedevil dial-up users. "The Java Script files that drive the SharePoint menus are quite large. The OWS.JS file is 400KB by itself," he says. "The only solution we know of is to host SharePoint using Terminal Services for dial-in users."

Centimano is thinking about instructing clients to use a third-party software tool that can compress Java script files. That, he says, will "hopefully make the site usable over dial-up without Terminal Services."

Most users didn't have much to say about SPS 2003's storage requirements -- with the exception of Convergent Computing's Gardinier, who cautions that organizations need to carefully plan their SPS storage infrastructure. "Any organization planning to use SPS as a document management solution should allot ample time for planning and design," he says. "Otherwise, storage requirements and costs will quickly [become] overwhelming."

Regardless of whether you're upgrading from an earlier version of SPS or implementing SharePoint for the first time, Gardinier suggests several strategies to help minimize your data storage requirements. "Consider this a time for house cleaning. Just because the files exist on some share doesn't necessarily mean that they must be incorporated into SPS," he says. "Map the number of sites to storage requirements and limit content with site quotas. For example, if sites are created on a per project basis and the typical project requires close to 100MB of data, consider limiting each site to 100MB. The storage requirement is then simply multiplying the number of sites with the limit."

User Wish Lists
Knowledge Management's Cardarelli would love to see Microsoft implement a workflow process for document approval. And although Microsoft significantly retooled the SharePoint UI in SPS 2003, Cardarelli says there's still more work to be done, starting with a more intuitive search interface. Similarly, he adds, while SPS 2003's native backup and restore facility is a welcome addition, it would be more useful if administrators could schedule backups with it, too.

Convergent Computing's Gardinier seconds Cardarelli's workflow thoughts. "Microsoft should incorporate at least basic workflow capabilities into the next release or service pack," he says, noting that "there are excellent third-party products" that address these shortcomings, such as SmartLibrary from Nintex.

Before Microsoft introduces bi-directional read and write integration between SharePoint and Active Directory, Goebel wants it to fix an annoying navigational quirk. "Allow admins the ability to change [or] customize the left-hand navigation," he pleads. "For example, when a user clicks into a sub area, the navigation should still continue to show the other sub areas so the user can cross-navigate. The current format drops the user down a level, but they have to click back up to get the other sub areas again."

Intellinet's Lowe wants Microsoft to improve interoperability between SPS 2003 and the Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) add-on it announced last year for Windows Server 2003. Microsoft positions WSS as a light weight version of SPS 2003 that's suitable for information sharing and collaboration among small teams. "The relationship between Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal needs more of an automated connection," he says. "When deleting WSS sites you have to manually change or delete any listings that point to the deleted site."

In environments where WSS and SPS 2003 are deployed side-by-side, performance problems abound, says Lowe. "With large document libraries, it takes much longer than expected to crawl content contained in Sharepoint Services Web sites," he says. "Since [WSS] generates a query for each document that is to be indexed, when there are a large number of documents, query performance decreases, and longer than expected for SharePoint Portal Server to crawl and index the documents."

SPS 2003 includes a built in back-up facility that should be all most organizations need, says Intellinet's Lowe. "You can back up and restore a server farm, a portal, or individual components of a SharePoint Portal Server deployment by using the SharePoint Portal Server Data Backup and Restore tool," he says. However, he notes the native SPS 2003 tool can't restore SharePoint databases to their original servers. For example, if you back up portal data in a SPS 2003 server farm with one database server, you can't restore this data to the original database. Instead, you must bring up a new database server and restore the backup to that.

The good news, Lowe says, is that there's a work-around: "[P]rovision a non-configuration database on the original server, and then restore the databases to the servers that you want in the server farm."

Better still, vendors such as Computer Associates and Veritas offer SharePoint agents for their popular enterprise backup tools. For users who are dissatisfied with the native SharePoint backup tools, these should be a superior, if considerably more expensive, option.

.NET Infrastructure
Lowe is smitten with SPS 2003's revamped Web Parts infrastructure, which lets users build and customize Web pages in SharePoint sites. Web Parts is built on top of ASP.NET and provides a .NET object model that contains classes that derive from and extend ASP.NET classes, Lowe says. Web Parts can be added by users at runtime, assuming that they have permission to do so, and enable a variety of scenarios, such as the creation of new sites and new pages; management of the user roster for a site; storage of Web Part customizations, including shared and personal property settings; administration of site backups and storage limits; and assignment of users to customizable site groups.
— Stephen Swoyer


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